“Then I will raise them up at the last day…”

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© Bruce Allen October 27, 2021

John 6:40

This is the piece in which I expose my flimsy understanding of Catholic and Christian theology in the context of trying to deal with my wife’s death. These thoughts come to me around 4 or 5 a.m.most days when I’m sitting in a lawn chair in my driveway in the back yard, searching the stars, silently howling at the moon, feeling some sense of communion, some vague sense of her spiritual presence. Me with my coffee, she, in my head, with hers.

This got me to thinking about what Catholics (I’m a late convert) believe about death and salvation, which got me thinking about my understanding of what the majority of Protestants believe (I’m also a failed Presbyterian) on the subject. I’ll cut to the chase by stating my opinion that the Protestant take on the subject seems somewhat silly, like everyone can have their own “road to Damascus” moment. I’ll continue by saying the Catholic dogma is little better. Now that I’ve offended everyone reading this, allow me to explain.

Protestants, I’m told, believe one can be ‘saved’ while living on Earth, that they can have an encounter with the risen Lord during this life, that they can accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and can live the rest of their lives comfortable in the assurance they will go straight to heaven upon their death. Catholics, I’m told, believe that at death, one’s spirit remains, somehow, earthbound, and that those chosen by the Lord will have their souls lifted up to heaven, by Jesus in his Second Coming, on the Last Day.

One of the things I’ve accepted about being Catholic is that I will not know my eternal destination, if you will, until I pass from this life. That one can’t really claim an isolated encounter in which Jesus pronounces one saved, relieving one of any need to worship or pray or do good works from then on out. (One supposes there are no take-backs.) It’s all just too easy to say; while it may grease the skids of one’s standing in a church community, there is reason to doubt that it has, in fact, anything to do with one’s eventual spiritual destination.

The Catholic version has some holes, too. I suppose the souls that don’t go straight to hell go to this purgatory place to hang until the Last Day. But I’ve been told that some Catholics can get “Get Out of Purgatory Free” cards; don’t know what they involve. But if one rejects the concept of purgatory but accepts that these millions of souls will eventually be raised, as stated in the Bible, the question arises: what are these souls, these spirits, doing now?

Certainly we didn’t bury them in the caskets; we profess that by that time the spirit has already left the body. And they haven’t yet made their way to heaven, those that make the cut. Eliminating purgatory, which seems to be a convenient construct to explain conflicting elements of their own dogma, one is left with the conclusion that the spirits of our loved ones may be atomized in the universe, awaiting the day when they will be gathered together and reassembled. Or, better yet, they are running around loose in our world, with Nancy offering us brief, imagined glimpses of herself, or appearing openly as a female cardinal. In the homes and yards of my daughters and me. Awaiting the call on the last day.

I realize this is a superficial effort to deal with my own sense of loss. Regardless of the subject, I suppose one could argue that any 70-year old man sitting in his driveway at 4:30 in the morning weeping and muttering at the sky has a few issues. I say if one feels temporarily crazy it’s a perfectly harmless way to deal with the problem. The process, it turns out, is referred to as intellection. It entails the brain grabbing hold of an idea or problem and tossing it around, like a ball of dough in a bread machine, until some ideas start to emerge. That my problem is essentially insoluble makes for some interesting mental exercise. See above. How long this process continues is a mystery.

Those of you who knew me when I was in my 20’s and was a table-pounding agnostic are probably surprised to read this. I realize most of my FB friends lean to the left, the intellectual/scientific/skeptic side of the ledger which is fine. Perhaps it’s reassuring to find Catholics capable of declarative sentences and coherent thoughts, even if you suspect them of being deranged. People are going to believe what they want to believe. Personally, I’m playing on the safe side of Pascal’s Wager, for Nancy’s sake and my own.

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No greater love…

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© Bruce Allen  October 26, 2021

In the days immediately preceding her death, our daughters and I were my wife Nancy’s constant companions, as one would expect. What one might not expect is that Nancy would have a friend who took this trauma willingly upon herself. One who came to our house and then to the hospice on W. 86th St., who would spend hour after hour caressing her, whispering to her, praying over her, holding her hand, during the worst days of the entire journey. During the days when the cancer had robbed her of her intellect, her sentience, and was in the process of disfiguring her, on its way to, finally, taking her, the train that was five years late at last pulling into the station. This, I suggest, is what they mean by agape love.

Many of you know who I’m talking about, Nancy and her friend, the Dynamic Duo of OLMC, the teachers, trainers, facilitators who made so many of the ministries work; I will simply call her Dee here in order to protect her privacy from people outside her wide arc of friends in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Dee is perhaps the holiest of all the people I’ve ever known who is willing to hang out with me. She and Nancy had a special relationship and a partnership that bloomed over several decades into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Nancy and Dee had complimentary skill sets and shared passions. They shared a passion for Mary, the Trinity and Christianity; Catholicism is up there somewhere, but these were the top two. Dee had two decades directing adult faith formation at a big Catholic parish north of Indianapolis. Nancy had trained as a corporate meeting facilitator, and together they put together some powerful presentations. People still talk about Nancy’s Myers-Briggs presentation at a marriage retreat a decade ago where she taped off the narthex and explained to everyone–all fifty couples–where the tension in their relationships arose. In about 15 minutes. Lights came on in people’s heads. She could do that.

When Nancy was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2016, she and Dee set off on numerous novenas and rosaries, healing masses, whatever. They kept right on working on little projects; Nancy was already working on several other projects with her friend Vee.

I have a clear memory of June 17, not only because it is our oldest’s birthday. Nancy and Dee were on a Zoom call that Dee was turning into a podcast. Nancy had her parts to contribute, and Dee hers. We were leaving on the long-awaited beach vacation, the last dance at Bethany, the next day. Nancy got all dressed up and made up and sharp-looking and sat at her computer actively doing her part, in great pain, as professional as usual. It was only afterwards that she confirmed to me that she had had to ‘dig deep’ to finish. She knew this would be her final project with Dee.

Dee was a regular visitor and texter during the time after we returned from Bethany in late June until Nancy’s passing. As July wore on we, the family, decided to limit her visitors, basically to Dee and a handful of others. In August, as things with Nancy became increasingly difficult, Dee was a constant presence, there to help, there to chat with Nancy while she was on morphine, another exercise of agape love, as the switch in Nancy’s brain had been turned from SEND to RECEIVE to OFF.

We had Nancy transported to inpatient hospice on Sunday, August 15th. Dee was there later that afternoon, after Nancy was ‘comfortably’ settled, to spend time with her. Nancy, at this point, was an hour-by-hour proposition. Dee was there on Monday the 16th for hours, talking with the family when she wasn’t keeping Nancy company. If you’re looking for a vision, picture Nancy with a humble path to Glory, and Dee out there with a broom clearing her way of dust and leaves.

We called hospice around 9:00am on Tuesday and were told that Nancy had just passed. Which I expect is not true, as we rushed over and she was waxen and cold; that doesn’t happen in an hour. Whatever. Dee, who had texted, comes in, sits at the bedside, says her final prayer over Nancy’s body, and turns to begin comforting us, the family, we who had just lost our north star.

And which continues to this day. I had dinner with Dee and her husband Jay the other night and they want to help me move forward in any way they can. With them, there is a holy element to almost everything and I need that these days.

Here’s what I started out to say. We, Nancy’s family, have all experienced trauma around her passing. Although it was a good as it could have possibly been, it was still gruesome to watch the disease’s final insults. But Dee willingly took on this trauma, made it her own, and lifted it up to God to make it endurable, to enable her to deliver Nancy’s eulogy without coming unglued. Unbidden, she took on her friend’s suffering in an effort to reduce ours. That is the next thing to laying down one’s life for a friend, the highest expression of human love there is. This is agape love at work. Dee was doing all these things out of love and love alone; there was no ulterior motive, no agenda. Just love.

Dee brought many elements to Nancy’s life that I couldn’t possibly bring, as I was so late to the party and so faint in my practice of the faith. Dee was and is immersed in her faith, and it just rubs off on everyone. I remember when she first corralled me to facilitate Bible Study, and later to lead the marriage enrichment ministry. I didn’t want either, but I couldn’t say no in the face of a woman who clearly encouraged the Holy Spirit to work through her to bring more people to her faith. She and Nancy could spend hours talking about scripture and the lessons to be learned therein; in effect, they were each other’s spiritual advisors.

So, in the midst of all these tears, we find reason to celebrate the Holy Spirit working through one of our friends to ease Nancy’s passing and the pain that follows for us. We pray, those of us who lean in that direction, that Nancy’s road to heaven was straight and short. If this entire heavenly construct is true, we should be celebrating Nancy dunking on St. Peter at the gates, reminding him that she’s from New Jersey. And we–her family–should remain grateful to Dee for our entire lives, for the selfless love she showed our mother and wife.

Until Death Do Us Part.

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© Bruce Allen   August 10, 2021

Marriage Blog Art

Note: Nancy Gillespie died on August 17, 2021.

We spoke these words in our wedding vows on September 27, 1975, part of the large ritual to which I paid little attention at the time. I was 24, she was 23, we were in fine health, the entire world laid out in front of us. The “until death do us part” line was just another piece in a large production. My belief we would always be together implied, as I’ve discovered, that I would pre-decease her. In other words, we would always be together as long as both of us lived. Once one of us were to die, the surviving spouse would only be able to say “45 years” or “a good long time.” Death interferes.

Death is busy interfering with our marriage at this very moment. She is lying in our room, in a hospital bed, an opioid pump attached to her giving her regular jolts. Mentally, she is 95% gone; physically, about the same. She has end-stage pancreatic cancer after over five years of chemo. She has fought the hell out of it. But, ultimately, as it almost always does, cancer wins. It may win here today or tomorrow. Actually, it has already won, since she is so far gone, a husk of her former vibrant self. Our adult daughters take turns hugging and caressing and whispering to her, all to little avail. But it makes them feel better.

My own instinct is to remove myself, as much as I can, from the scene in the bedroom, as I generally sit down, glance at her, and start crying, thinking about how I’m going to miss her. I went to Costco for a few items yesterday, and usually I glance at women’s clothing to see if I can find anything for her. Dressed by Kirkland, as it were. As I walked past the apparel, it occurred to me that so many of the things I buy I do with with her in mind, that I haven’t grocery shopped just for myself in over 40 years other than the odd week when she’s been out of town. Triggers.

Removing myself from her room I see as beginning the process of breaking 50 year-old physical bonds that will break completely some time soon. The hospice nurse said while here yesterday that when death is imminent she will start visiting everyday. She will be here today and tomorrow. I’m not sure all of this pre-grieving will help anything when the time comes, but I have no choice.

Just for the record, I do not buy into all of the “celebration of life” stuff they surround funerals with these days. When have you ever been to a real celebration where the main celebrants are all collapsed in tears? How does one go about celebrating a life cut short, a life with so much left to give? How does one celebrate a God who looks at a marriage, decides to take one of the spouses, and then takes the wrong one?

Our six grand kids will get hollowed out by this experience one way or another. For the four older ones, this will be a readily-understandable, if psychologically unacceptable, experience they will feel in real time, their grief ultimately replaced by real memories. For the two young ones, the older sister is, at 6, too young to get it completely, but she gets it, and is kind of stuck in no-man’s land–grieving with everyone else but not fully clear on the details. For the three-year old, this will be something she will only come to grips with when she’s older, seeing photographs of herself with Nanny, hearing about the pictured events, developing kind of virtual memories, having missed out on the real ones because her hard drive and RAM are still being installed.

Our hearts, though powerful pumps, are fragile things. They are subject to breakage, both slight–a chip here, a gouge there–and major, such as what occurs when a lover dumps you or a spouse contracts a fatal illness. My own heart is holding up okay thus far until the words goodbye, forever, I love you, I’ll miss you, won your race, made it home, time to let go, put it in God’s hands, or any of a hundred other phrases pop into the air, or even just my head, and I start to melt down. Hearing Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow singing two songs–When I Get Where I’m Going and Always on Your Side–gets me right here. We have been anticipating these days for five years, yet it is still such a shock when they finally arrive. Like a train that’s five years late.

So, we suffer with her, me and two of my daughters. Our eldest is stuck 2000 miles away, has been here twice recently, but may not be able to return until after The Flood, with her kids and her ex, who is also part of this family. She and her kids have already said goodbye to her mom and their Nanny. As hard as this is for me and my kids, it will be harder on their kids, as it is like Pearl Harbor for them, emotionally.

Some of the hardest moments in people’s lives are those where they must face their own mortality. People who died suddenly sometimes avoid this altogether. Most people don’t. Some, like my wife, confront it every day for years, a constant reminder that there will be some terrible days in one’s future. There wasn’t a single day in those five plus years when my wife didn’t want to live. Now, that the time has come for her to let go and rest on her laurels, she is having a hard time, her memories reduced mostly to muscle memory, the holding on having become strong and firm and terribly hard to let go of.

But she will, perhaps today. I just went in and sat with her. Put my hand on hers and got no response. She is still inside that body of hers somewhere, but she’s hard to reach and getting harder each day. My goal, as a writer, is to get my readers to laugh and cry in the same post. Which is why I’m ending this one with her final coherent words to me, after almost 46 years of civilized discourse. A few days ago she wanted to hold a small bowl of cut fruit I had made for her, and I wanted to hold it for her, to help her eat and avoid a spill. In the midst of this slight tussle, she looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t mess with me.”

I married her, in great part, because of her indomitable spirit, how she was impossible to intimidate. Small but powerful. I never wanted a life partner who would be subservient and “whatever you say” me to an early departure. I wanted a woman with some genuine intellectual horsepower and the willingness to speak her mind. And I had her, for almost 50 years. That girl is now gone, but I shall hold up my end of the deal and care for her remnant, until death do us part.

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When God Turns the Tables

Perhaps 15 years into our 42 year marriage, it became pretty clear that Nancy would outlive me. Women generally outlive men. She has always taken better care of herself than I have–better diet, more exercise, meditation, yoga, Sudoku. For me, this natural state of things was always premised on the virtual guarantee that I would, by predeceasing her, leave her to deal with the messy emotional and social fallout.   Similar, in many respects, to my point of view concerning the weddings of our daughters–they just seemed to happen on their own, and all I had to do was show up properly dressed with as few prepared remarks as possible.

Along with the diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer came this ridiculous possibility that I would outlive her. A scenario I had literally never considered. I recall having laughed out loud at my father, 14 years older than my mother and with his own cardiologist, who would occasionally wring his hands about what he was going to do when Mom was gone. His worries were, as expected, unfounded.  Mine, perhaps not.

[In fact, my concerns may be misplaced, just like my father’s were.  Nancy is doing remarkably well with chemo, her blood chemistry is all in the green, her weight has stayed up and she shows very little in the way of slowing down.  She doesn’t complain about her neuropathy the way she used to, especially during infusion week. My own health is “OK,” which is to say not perfect but not imminently dangerous.]

As an economist, I’m comfortable around statistics.  As a reformed gambler, I still figure the odds and go with what seems most likely. As (determined by StrengthFinders) someone who practices intellection, these statistics and odds and percentages bounce around in my brain.  I talk to Jesus about them in the Chapel. He reminds me we know not when nor where. I remind him of five year survival rates and the physical effects of long term exposure to chemotherapy.

Since Day One, Nancy has not wanted a prognosis attached to her condition, and has been more or less actively disinterested in her disease other than routine conversations with her oncologist. In this, her approach differs from mine, as I’ve always been more comfortable with a devil I know than one I don’t. But, as a spouse, I have recognized, out loud, that this is her journey, that I am beside her for care and support, that she will make these types of decisions–what and whether to talk about–and I will respect her choices.

old-couple in loveAnd so here is the point. The spouse with the serious illness gets to make these calls, all of them. How much to know and how much to leave unsaid. What to discuss and what not to discuss. The caregiver must willingly include these in the inventory of things about which you will want to talk less. If, as in my case, you find a need to discuss concerns you cannot comfortably share with your spouse, do what I do and talk to a counselor every now and again.

In the most recent ten years of our marriage, when we both worked, we had maybe 30 minutes in the evening to sit together and discuss the day’s events.  Now, we no longer have work, we have a few subjects that are off limits, and instead of 30 minutes we have more like 10 hours. Nancy has been more comfortable with these periods of sustained silence than have I, but I’m getting better. Spouses may want to prepare for these in advance, as they should not be misinterpreted as character flaws or a lack of bonhomie, as it were.

It has taken me awhile to understand God’s will in this radically-altered future of ours. This, what we are living, is God’s will. It is God’s will that Nancy carry on her lifelong interest in learning and teaching, and that she be allotted time to do so. It is God’s will that she can suffer in private and go out socially looking healthy and vibrant. It is God’s will that she have someone like me to hang around and take care of her. And it is God’s will that I have finally found a vocation, after decades of searching, that gives me a feeling of purpose and allows me to express my love language–acts of service–every day.

Life is not a bed of roses, and Christian marriage comes not without costs. But being married, at this stage in our lives, is a blessing beyond measure. If you are struggling in your marriage, it may help you appreciate each other by fast-forwarding the film 25 or 30 years, to an empty nest and a dread disease. For the sick spouse, you are unlikely to be able to purchase such loving care on the open market. For the caregiver, being in a position to uphold the marriage vows you made 40 years earlier is a great honor, likely held in high esteem by God. And no couples get there without weathering some serious storms along the way.cropped-lse-masthead6.jpg

The 10 Commandments of Marriage

Not sure how I found my way to Bridal Guide magazine, but I did, in searchman and woman of something suitable for this site now that my regular second job is on hiatus, leaving some time to work on marriage issues. The article from which these ideas are stolen is one of those multi-page things that most of us hate, but I encourage you to stick with it and read them all. Very sound secular advice.

1. Thou shalt be fun.
2. Thou shalt be sexy.
3. Thou shalt be financially honest.
4. Thou shalt be grateful.
5. Thou shalt keep confidences.
6. Thou shalt keep thine own lives.
7. Thou shalt be an extended family.
8. Thou shalt let bygones be bygones.
9. Thou shalt be faithful in every way.
10. Thou shalt live a healthy lifestyle.

Had this article been prepared with a more spiritual outlook, it probably would have dropped a couple of these in favor of, say, “practicing thine faith together” or “thou shalt respect the sanctity of the marital bed.” Actually, it’s not too hard to imagine a Catholic magazine publishing this same article and replacing items #1 and 2 with these two directives.

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleWhich, in my opinion, would be a mistake. The first two items on the list deserve their place of prominence not just because they apply to young brides and grooms, but moreover because they enable couples to navigate the waters from “newlywed” to “golden anniversary.” Being fun, or funny, is one of the failsafe techniques for keeping relationships blooming. I like to think that my wife of 40 years has laugh lines around her eyes partially due to me; lacking any number of social graces, I’ve always tried to at least keep her smiling, if not laughing out loud.

Item #2 is, likewise, important during the entire course of our marriages. old-couple in loveAs we age, our sexual abilities, wants and desires change.   However, these changes do nothing to our ability to be interesting, perhaps playful, to show interest, to initiate intimacy, to be clean, shaved and fresh, to put clean sheets on the bed, light a few candles, put on some music, etc. Sexual encounters, once a couple is empty nesters, are fairly simple to arrange, but sometimes difficult to execute in the conventional way, or ways. With young kids in the house, it takes real commitment to intimacy to find time—or even a place—to enjoy each other’s presence. There’s some frustration built into each scenario—having the ability and not the time, or having the time with diminished skills—but it remains important to keep fun and physical intimacy in your relationship, else couples risk ending up living together as brother and sister, polite and considerate with nothing resembling passion ar mutual engagement. This is NOT how to keep a marriage strong and healthy.

I think items #3-10 are pretty intuitive. Gratitude, forgiveness, faith, maintenance of self are all qualities that we easily maintain with our friends, but not always so easily with our spouses. The one commandment that is REALLY missing, the one that is more important than perhaps any of the others, goes something like this:

Thou shalt be friends first, foremost and forever.

holding handsAs we have remarked often in this space, couples have a much better chance to make it to their golden anniversary—roughly 2-3% of married couples accomplish this—if they are friends as well as lovers. Friends don’t cash in their relationship because of a fight or disagreement. Friends tend to usually fight fairly with their friends; spouses perhaps not so much. John Gottman, in his book we have virtually worn the cover off of in this blog, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, states unequivocally that friendship before and during marriage is one of the great predictors of a couple’s likelihood of staying together, happy and content.

God bless all married couples during this busy and exhausting season of joy.

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Do You and Your Spouse Do These Five Things?

CBurrowsphoto #1Huffington Post strikes again, this time in Facebook survey results compiled by staff writer Yagana Shah, who tallied responses from a FB survey that asked married couples what they believe helps them maintain lively, enriching marriages.  Ms. Shah’s interests include, presumably among other things, “health news, bucket lists, and the British royal family.” Not sure where this particular article fits within all that, but there are some suggestions in here that are worth your time.  If these are old news, it means you spend too much time on Facebook.  My guess is that if you read this blog regularly you’re already doing a number of them.  If not, it’s never too late.

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1.  Travel together.  I remember vividly when we were first married and Nancy was flexing her New Jerseyism she told me she thought we ought to take separate vacations. This was back in the day when “open marriage” was a very hip concept and married couples were exploring all sorts of ways to do the same things they did when they were single.  (She also told me she like the idea of deer hunting, which shocks me to this day.)  But couples active on Facebook say traveling together is one of the joys of marriage, and both Nancy and I agree.

Though we do occasionally take separate vacations (she went to Africa with two of our ???????????????????????????????kids and their husbands back in 2013, and I went to Malaysia on a junket last fall) we generally travel together.  If you believe that the only difference between you today and you a year from now is the books you read, the people you meet and the places you go, traveling together is a third of the whole trip.  We have pretty indelible memories of our trips to Ireland, Alaska and Spain, and look forward to more such jaunts in the years to come.  Day trips and weekend getaways have much the same restorative effect, though you may need to take some pictures to capture those memories.

Man-Laughing2.  Laugh together.  I make a conscious effort to give Nancy a good laugh or two every day, as I believe this is one thing that keeps her looking young and, well, beautiful.  She has an active sense of humor too, although I’m not sure why I look so beat up and worn out.  For most couples, the funniest jokes are the inside jokes that only the two of them get.  Our parents had expressions we repeat on a regular basis that make us smile and help us remember them, and they’ve become part of the fabric in our marriage as well as our relationships with our kids.  If your marriage is in good shape it is probably easier to look back over the years and recall the funny episodes than it is the not-so-funny ones.

3.  Keep dating.  This is somewhat trickier than it sounds, based on whether you’re a husband or a wife.  Most husbands, I suspect, equate date night with sex, while fewer wives make the same connection.  One book I read suggested that couples pursue several varieties of date nights:  a) sex dates, b) outings that don’t include sex, and c) the Swiss army knife of dates, a fun outing that includes sex.Wedding

The important point here is that getting married doesn’t/cannot signal the end of dating.  Nor is it necessary that a date be expensive; a bowl of popcorn and a movie after the kids are in bed counts.  For whatever reason, guys are still, I suspect, expected to do the heavy lifting when it comes to arranging non-lame dates, so guys, turn off the TV and gather some fun ideas.  Play your cards right and you may end up enjoying a Swiss army knife.

Couple-planting-tree4. Work toward a goal together.  Not as easy as dialing up dinner and a movie, but the possibilities are virtually endless.  Growing your faith together by taking up a ministry at your church, taking on a project like landscaping the backyard, finding common items on your bucket lists and checking them off together, these things can contribute to a sense of common purpose, especially during the empty nest years.

Certainly, parents with young children have some built-in common goals, i.e., get them kids raised and out of the house. Once they’re gone, though, couples have the freedom, if not the responsibility, to find some common activities that provide a healthy sense of pursuing shared objectives.  HINT:  Our experience shows that taking up tennis, paddling canoes and wallpapering a small room together can have negative outcomes.

5. Hold hands. Always.  Although neither of us are prone to much in the way of PDAs, this is a healthy practice, as it provides a physical connection in a world in which they are increasingly hard to come by.  There’s no way a healthy emotional/spiritual relationship cannot be enhanced by increased physical contact.holding hands

Recall when you were 13 and held someone’s hand for the first time, the jolt of electricity that traveled through you.  25 years later, the physical jolt may be long gone, but the value of the touch itself remains.  This is especially true for spouses whose “receiving” love language is physical touch.  So, when you’re out together, hold hands.  Keep in mind that if some teenager sneers and tells you to “get a room,” you can, without having to tell him to “get a girlfriend.”

The common thread in all of this, I suppose, is that each of these five activities releases endorphins, to a greater or lesser degree.  For married couples in committed relationships, endorphins are rocket fuel–you can’t get too much of them.  If you have additional ideas for releasing endorphins, please comment and share.

God bless you.

Love Cycles

5stagesThe title of this post is the title of another “how to” book on marriage I just read, this one by therapist  Linda Carroll.  She discusses the five stages of loving relationships around which she has built a 35 year practice in couples counseling.  (I’m beginning to think that everything on earth has five stages, but that’s just me.)  Before getting into the content of the book itself, I wanted to share the most powerful statement contained therein, a quote from poet Rainier Maria Rilke:  “For one human being to love another human being; that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation.”  Wish I’d written that, or had the emotional depth to even have come close to writing it.  Beautiful thought.

So, the five stages of loving relationships, pretty straightforward stuff:  The Merge.  Doubt Busy-Parentsand Denial.  Disillusionment.  Decision.  And, finally, Wholehearted Loving.  Carroll takes multiple examples from couples with whom she has worked, and the anecdotal evidence allows the reader to recognize stages in which he/she currently resides or has passed through.  The liner notes claim the book offers “a clear strategy for how to stay happy and committed, even in difficult times,” with which I might argue.  Nancy and I have weathered some serious storms over the course of 40 years, and I’m not sure I would have been open to many of the suggestions the author makes for dealing with those stages beginning with the letter D, all of which were painful, difficult and exhausting.  I admit to not being overly open-minded about most things, and also admit that Nancy’s abilities to understand and coach me are what saved our relationship more than once.

The book is a pretty quick read, and perhaps you might want to check it out of your library.  I think the following list–Carroll’s Six C’s–does a nice job of hitting the high points of the book if you’re pressed for time or grooving in the “happily ever after” stage of your relationship:

  • Choice.  Pretty much everything we do as individuals or half of a committed couple involves making choices.  Even we feel helpless, we are making, and living with the consequences, of our own choices.  We are writing our own stories.
  • Commitment.  Part and parcel of sacramental marriage.  We must burn our own boats.  We must make this relationship the most important single fact of our lives and move beyond our fears and our periodic urge to flee, turning toward our partner in difficult times and, if necessary, seeking help to make our relationship work. Remembering how we felt in those first few weeks and months is a useful exercise, along with finding the way to a mature form of those electric sensations.  No, they don’t last forever.  Yes, they can remind us of what we felt early in the relationship, and motivate us to  move away from  thinking, as Carroll describes, “Why aren’t you ME?”
  • Celebration.  As Nancy has observed more than once, for every Jack there’s a Jill. Having found one another, you need to take time to celebrate the grace, the confluence of circumstances, that brought you together.  As humans, we are called to discover who we are as individuals and to fulfill our purpose on earth, making use of our gifts.  To share this journey, the experience of becoming ourselves, with another person on the same trip, calls for celebrations, even small ones, as often as possible.  We need to count our blessings and give thanks for each one, no matter how small or cleverly disguised.
  • Compassion.  In relationships, it is synonymous with forgiveness.  Scripture tells us we are to forgive even those who mean to harm us.  Doesn’t it follow, then, that we need to be fountains of forgiveness with our spouse or partner?  We’ve discussed in this space conditions and behaviors outside the realm of forgiveness–violence, abuse, etc.–but in the absence of pure malice, it is incumbent upon us to not only forgive our partners for their shortcomings, but to forgive ourselves for our own.
  • Cocreation.  A clever term for finding effective ways to manage conflict, share decisions, support one another, and avoid ending up in ruts.  This is about finding and exploring common interests, about not settling for night after night of television, about engaging one another and challenging each other to find new and different things to keep the relationship blooming.  Nancy convinced me several years ago that we should commit to a monthly activity we’ve never (or only rarely) done before, which explains the terrible investment I made several years ago in a pair of tickets to Shen Yun.  But there have been a bunch of fun, memorable outings in the meantime, with more to come.  A maple syrup tour.  The glass-blowing trail in northern Indiana. A country music concert (?) at Klipsch.  So get up, get out, and get with it!
  • Courage.  The courage to confront our own faults, the issues in our relationships and the conditions of our lives in an honest, loving spirit of awareness.  Lots of this stuff is hard, but we are capable of doing hard stuff.  So many people, caught up in the daily grind, go through the motions of living, whether as individuals or half of a couple.  If we are going to find true happiness, as people and as couples, we cannot settle for taking the easy way out of this life.  We should, instead, pin a copy of Rainier Maria Rilke’s quote above our desks and on our refrigerators, to help us remain mindful of the gift of our chosen vocation.

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